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180 reviews in total 
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2 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
A Very Peculiar Story told with Grace and Humor, 15 March 2015

Finders Keepers was warmly received at the SXSW Film Festival. It is one of those stories which prove that truth is almost always much stranger than fiction. There are many true stories – like this one – which no one would believe if you wrote them as fiction.

In this bizarre tale of how John Wood's amputated leg is accidentally sold at auction to Shannon Whisnant who has the screwball idea of making money by displaying it as some sort of macabre tourist attraction. The film actually uses this strange incident as an opportunity to explore the severely dysfunctional lives of both men and their families. Wood is a drug addict still dealing with the grief of losing his father in the same plane crash that cost him his leg. Whisnant appears to be some sort of unhappy narcissist who sees the purchase of an amputated leg as his ticket to the fame and fortune that has long eluded him thus far in his rather mundane life

The film makers take this material and while gently mocking the men's eccentricities also allows them to share their complicated stories. The film may even serve as a partial catharsis for them. Finders Keepers is hilarious. The filmmakers keep the story moving in a highly entertaining manner. Despite the entertainment component the emotions of the protagonists and their families are very real and their pain about the problems in their lives is also very real. Really the leg they are battling for becomes a strange metaphor for the aspects of themselves that are missing in both their lives. Finders Keepers walks the line between comedy and tragedy and does so delightfully. I had no idea what to expect when I walked into this film and I think I got a lot more than I expected.

Invasión (2014)
An Intriguing Panamanian View of the US Invasion of Panama, 14 March 2015

Invasion was warmly welcomed at its premiere at Austin's SXSW Film Festival. It provides a retrospective look at the US invasion of Panama in 1989. It appears to be one of the first theatrical examinations of this event by a Panamanian. While the film is compelling some of its directorial choices seem surprising. It isn't really a history of the invasion as much as it is a series of interviews with Panamanian witnesses as to what they remember about what happened 25 years ago. At what point it is suggested that the film is intended to show how the invasion is remembered rather than what actually happened. This leaves open the question of whether we are hearing peoples' actual memories or those that they have reconstructed in their own minds over a quarter century. The interviewees are never identified by name or title. There is no real attempt to provide political context or narration. Surprisingly, there is no archival photography of the invasion leaving the viewer to merely imagine what it might have looked like. There is no attempt to interview scholars or journalists who covered the invasion which might have provided context, which seems particularly useful for an international audience. In another odd decision, the director uses actors to make somewhat clumsy recreations of dead civilians in the street. The exercise seems somewhat pointless when archival footage would have been easily accessible.

Still Invasion is enjoyable and informative. Some of the witnesses offer compelling first-hand testimony about the events of the invasion. Their personal witness is powerful. Their political analysis and historical context seems significantly less satisfactory. The reasons for the invasion and the extent of the casualties remain obscure and poorly defined leaving the viewer intrigued, but confused. The film is an interesting one for those interested in American foreign policy and the role of historical memory, but its limited scope feels somewhat incomplete. If documentary is supposed to bring the viewer closer to the truth, Invasion instead raises more questions than it answers.

Manglehorn (2014)
1 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
An Enjoyable Character Study by a Great Actor, 14 March 2015

Manglehorn was warmly received at Austin's SXSW Film Festival. It isn't Al Pacino's best work. Of course, he is no longer the Pacino of Dog Day Afternoon, Godfather, Serpico, Scarface, Scent of a Woman and Heat, but he is still better than most. The script is solid, but not extraordinary. The film is mostly a one-man show. However, I honestly believe I would enjoy watching a film about Al Pacino watching paint dry. Pacino is just a pleasure to watch even now as an aging legend his intense screen presence remains. He is remarkable to watch when he is changing a light bulb or feeding a cat. In this film he plays an elderly locksmith who has been wounded by a long lost love and is trying to learn how to trust again. His on-again off-again attempt to build a relationship with Holly Hunter and to reconnect with his estranged son – played by Chris Messina - is certainly enjoyable. Underneath his tough interior there seems to be a heart of gold that is often only shared with beloved cat. He has so often played larger than life characters, but here he has taken on a much more ordinary and blue collar identity. The charisma is still there, but so much more of the character's emotions are internalized. We are left to wonder about all the events that have led up to who he has become. Recommended for all fans of good drama and of one of the greatest actors of our time.

4 out of 4 people found the following review useful:
An Inspiring Story about the Journey of Anti-Bullying Activist, 14 March 2015

A Brave Heart: The Lizzie Velasquez Story was extremely well-received in its hometown premiere at the Paramount Theatre at Austin's SXSW Film Festival. One can not help but be inspired by the struggle of someone like Lizzie Velasquez to overcome her disabilities and stand up for other kids who have been bullied. It is a remarkable journey and the film works fairly well as memoir of Lizzie's journey and a tribute to the love and devotion of her parents. Her personal story of overcoming adversity and her ability to turn her disability around and use it to help others as an activist is uplifting. It is also shameful that Republicans in the U.S. Congress have been blocking the passage of anti-bullying legislation in the name of small government and local control of schools.

While Lizzie's story is deeply inspiring the film is a little slow and repetitive. It falls into an emerging genre of anti-bullying films such as Bully. It may be in part, because it is designed to tell the story to young people rather than adults. There are a lot of simplistic clichés that don't really get at the causes of bullying or explore why young people become bullies or how adults can interdict and prevent bullying. This would have strengthened the film considerably. In short, Lizzie's personal story is stronger than the film meant to tell her story.

Western (2015)
1 out of 3 people found the following review useful:
A Boring Slice of Life on Texas Border, 14 March 2015

I was looking forward to seeing Western at Austin SXSW Film Festival, but frankly I came away deeply disappointed. Like their previous film 45365, the film seemed pointless. I found myself shifting in my seat and looking at the time on my phone and wondering when the film would be over and if anything would ever actually happen. The film has no story, no direction and no dramatic arc to the narrative. Many of its scenes could have been filmed almost anywhere in America – at least in rural America. We see a small town mayor speaking in platitudes about US-Mexican cooperation and a rancher trying to raise his young daughter. Yes, there was a rodeo and a sick cow with diarrhea. Is their point that Eagle Pass, TX is pretty much like anywhere else in America? The film is supposedly about the drug war in Mexico and its impact on Eagle Pass, but that subtext is poorly explored. Some of the people talk about it and seem to play it down and seem angry that the government has prevented the importation of Mexican cattle. But with no narration, no experts to provide context to the film there seems to be little point. There is nothing to really learn and I didn't feel better informed when I left the film than when I went in. As in 45365, the film seems overly romantic and uncritical of the problems of small town life. Everything just seems to be hunky-dory. There is no real critical lens to understand the problems of Eagle Pass and Piedras Negras, Mexico. While the camera work was often quite beautiful and there was an artistic quality to it, I don't think art is valuable for its own sake unless it is attempting to express profound idea or ask serious questions about our society. Western did neither. A picture of a bird may be pretty, but I can look out my window and see that. I admit this sort of work is inherently subjective and others might find Western enjoyable, but this observer was disappointed and frustrated by these obviously talented filmmakers who don't seem to be applying their talents in a manner that is worthy of their technical skills.

A Beautiful Film about High School Seniors Volunteering for Hospice Work, 13 March 2015

Beginning with the End. A Beautiful Film about High School Seniors Volunteering for Hospice Work. Beginning with the End was warmly received at its world premiere at the SXSW Film Festival. This small film offers a lens into a world that many of us don't want to think about. It focuses in on an unusual High School elective class in which seniors at a high school in Rochester, New York, spend a year volunteering as helpers in a local hospice programs. It is a wonderful an innovative program that should be duplicated, because it offered these young people a unique opportunity to think about the lives ahead of them and how they can make their lives truly worthwhile. Their caring teacher acts as their guide through these treacherous emotional waters. The students grow and develop their senses of empathy and humanity. The film is beautifully made and the personalities of the student care-givers, their co-workers and hospice residents are brought to life with a deeply human touch. The filmmakers should be commended for finding and exploring this complicated topic with kindness and love. I hope that many people have a chance to view this lovely little film on the meaning of life and death.

1 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
Fascinating film about Democracy and White Supremacy in Small Town America, 13 March 2015

Welcome to Leith was well-received at its showing at Austin's SXSW Film Festival. The film documents the peculiar events that occurred in 2013-2014 when a nationally-known white supremacist Craig Cobb moves to tiny Leith, North Dakota (population: 24) with a plan to buy up land and take over city government and make it into some sort of center of white supremacy. Once alerted by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) the ordinary town folks mobilize to fight back and save their town from Cobb's nefarious plan.

The odd part of the story is that Cobb's plan seems to be legal. (When he and his partner are finally arrested they almost seem to have been provoked.) There is nothing illegal about buying land and moving into a town. And the first amendment allows him to express his beliefs and fly his Nazi flags no matter how evil and offensive those beliefs may be. The town residents actually seemed to be making excuses to get rid of him such as citing him for not having running water and a sewage system on his property.

Fundamentally, the film asks the question is democracy about the community making decisions by the will of the majority or is there a basic set of minimum beliefs about human equality that are necessary prerequisites to participate in democratic society? The majority of the town seemed to decide – really quite reasonably - that Cobb's noxious beliefs were so anti-egalitarian that they didn't want him and his cronies to live in their town. They are in some sense intolerant of his intolerant beliefs, but one can hardly blame them.

Welcome to Leith is beautifully filmed and the filmmakers maintain an impressive level of objectivity about their offensive subject. They let his evil beliefs discredit themselves rather than trying to paint Cobb as anything more than the pathetic nasty creature that he is. The townspeople come off as genuine and human. Perhaps it is a positive sign that this sort of racism is unacceptable even in one of the smallest most isolated corners of the United States. I hope that Welcome to Leith gets widely distributed so that many more people can enjoy this powerful film.

2 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
A Powerful Story about A Navy Seal's Transformation to a Woman, 5 July 2014

Lady Valor was well-received at its world premiere at Austin's SXSW Film Festival. The unique transformation of Chris to Kristen is eloquently conveyed. The film, which was developed from a profile originally run by CNN's Anderson Cooper, tells the remarkable story of the transformation of a macho gung-ho decorated 20-year Navy Seal from a man's man to a woman. Obviously, it is meant to challenge some of the stereotypes that often exist about the transgendered. The story is certainly well-told with deft touch for humanizing Kristen's struggles. It shows Kristen's often difficult struggle for acceptance with her family and her former military colleagues. I think this story might have been more shocking a few years ago and still will be with certain audiences although at this stage it didn't seem all that hard to believe for the audience at a progressive film festival in a liberal city like Austin, TX. Of course, these aren't the people that need to see this story. This film needs to be viewed by military folks who may still hold negative views of transgendered youth. It also needs to be viewed by young people in some more conservative parts of the country who haven't been exposed to this sort of situation. Unfortunately, I fear that the folks that most need to see this film are ones least likely to view it.

The Normal Heart (2014) (TV)
70 out of 78 people found the following review useful:
Tragic Story about the Early Days of the AIDS Epidemic, 25 May 2014

The Normal Heart is powerful emotional film about the early days of the AIDS crisis. While the characters are fictionalized, the events and the struggles are all too real. The film provides a valuable history lesson for those too young to remember the politics and emotions of the early days of the AIDS epidemic. The film dramatizes the criminal neglect of both the Reagan administration and Ed Koch's administration in New York City. It shows the complexity of the struggles within the gay community as they tried to come to grips with an epidemic while still trying to challenge a culture that barely acknowledged their existence. In many ways, the film dramatizes just how far we have come and still suggests that we have a long way to go. Some scenes are simply heart-breaking. The film is well-acted particularly by Mark Ruffalo, Matt Bomer, Alfred Molina and Julia Roberts. HBO has shown again that it is in the forefront of bringing socially conscious drama to the screen and for that they should be commended. I recommend the film to all who are willing to watch with an open heart.

A Very Sweet Film about Jigsaw Puzzle Competitions, 26 April 2014

Wicker Kittens was warmly received during its world premiere at the SXSW Film Festival in Austin, TX. It is a very simple straightforward film about folks who compete in jigsaw puzzle competitions. It falls in line with a series of recent documentaries on American competitions – including Scrabble (Word Wars), Crossword puzzles (Wordplay), and spelling bees (Spellbound). These sorts of films are small pieces of Americana. There is nothing complicated or deep about this formula, but when well-done, it opens a window in a small piece of Americana. Wicker Kittens focused on several teams (made up mostly of older adults) and mostly-based in Minnesota in the lead up a major competition in St. Paul, MN. The competitors are sweet, quirky individuals who just enjoy doing puzzles and have devoted a lot of time to this hobby. I found it particularly entertaining to see how seriously the teams took the competition and the strategizing. For me, this lovely film brought back many childhood memories of sitting around a card table in our living room doing jigsaw puzzles with my Mom.

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